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A story of resilience and fragilities: the impact of COVID-19 on horizontal cohesion in conflict-affected countries, July 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought along with it massive challenges related to health response, socio-economic impacts, and information sharing; and communities in conflict face additional hurdles in maintaining stability during this period. To mitigate the mutual influence of conflict dynamics and COVID-19 response, Search for Common Ground (Search) has partnered with the European Union to produce research on a quarterly basis addressing key themes faced across six conflict-affected countries, namely Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen. Each report includes concrete recommendations for maintaining the credibility of pandemic response efforts, minimising the negative effects of the pandemic on conflict dynamics, and identifying opportunities for collaboration. This second thematic report is an attempt to analyse horizontal social cohesion in conflict settings throughout the pandemic. The report builds on insights from our Quarterly Conflict Snapshot Reports.

Understanding the Importance of Horizontal Cohesion During a Pandemic

For the purposes of this report, we define horizontal cohesion as the relationships between individuals and/or groups across horizontal dividing lines (i.e. ethnic, religious, geographic, and political dividing lines, etc.). During times of crisis, levels of horizontal cohesion between population groups tend to fluctuate depending on a variety of factors. Low or deteriorating levels of horizontal cohesion during crisis situations are often indicators of potential violence, conflict, and/or rising tensions among and between groups. Additionally, high or increasing levels of horizontal cohesion during a crisis are often indicators of the overall resilience of a particular community during times of crisis and can reveal entry points for collaboration around crisis response. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many anticipated the virus would have disastrous effects for conflict affected countries - well beyond the immediate health implications. There were predictions of heightened political tensions, increased polarisation between and among groups, and intensified insecurity and violence that would coincide with impending socio-economic disaster. Yet, while larger, international calls for collaboration and peace in the face of the pandemic have seen uneven success (i.e. global ceasefires, etc.), we have actually seen relative resilience and stability at the community level in relation to horizontal cohesion in our research countries. In many cases, our data shows that horizontal cohesion is actually increasing, albeit, with important caveats and vulnerabilities.

We find there are key opportunities around horizontal cohesion that health responders, international practitioners, civil society actors, governments, and donors can tap into for improved pandemic response. More importantly, strengthening horizontal cohesion throughout the pandemic and recovery periods, especially for conflict-affected communities, can avert longer-term crises and outbreaks of violence while ensuring diverse needs are being met.